Work with Your Biggest Problem First

Practice of the Week
Work with Your Biggest Problem First

Category: Slogans to Live By: Carry these reminders at all times. These practices don't require setting aside a separate substantial chunk of time -- but they will slow you down a bit (and that's a good thing.) Resolve to get stronger at living by these maxims, day by day. Sometimes make one of them the focus of your daily journaling.

Adapted from Norman Fischer, Training in Compassion, "Work with Your Biggest Problem First."

What is your biggest problem -- that is, the thing that bothers you the most about yourself in your relationships to others? Just pay attention to it. The light of attention will gradually guide you to the corrective.

Decompensation -- originally a medical term for "the inability of a diseased heart to compensate for its defect;" more broadly, "a loss of ability to maintain normal or appropriate psychological defenses, sometimes resulting in depression, anxiety, or delusions" -- affects us all. We all have our own preferred tendency for decompensation -- which is to say, each one of us is given our own personal gift of craziness. Some get angry, some depressed, some anxious. Some are meddlesome, some lazy, some hyperactive, some distractible.

One of the insights of mind training (and it comes as a great relief) is that there is no normal. We are all abnormal, each in our own delightful way. The trick is, first, to accept this, and next, to have some idea of the most important ways in which you are abnormal.

Let's say it's anger. You anger easily, and when you are angry you are miserable, and you inevitably say and do stupid things for which you later feel remorse and shame -- and you've been this way all of your life. Very well, now you are aware of your personal gift, your treasure. Shunryu Suzuki had a saying:
"For a Zen student, a weed is a treasure."
Rather than seeing your problem with anger as a personal defect to be hidden or overcome, you see this weed as a treasure. You don't resolve to work on other things and save this most difficult one for later. You resolve to pay attention to it now and keep on paying attention until, through your continued attention over time, things begin to change.

Later, something else will be your biggest problem. It's always something. Attend to whatever is biggest right now.

You don't need to overcome your biggest problems overnight, nor should you defer them to another time. Pay attention right now to what bothers you the most about yourself in your relationships to others and trust that simply by paying attention, little by little you will see what you need to do.

Adapted from Judith Lief, "Work with the Greatest Defilement First."

This is a great slogan for procrastinators. It is all about looking into those things we avoid, that we put off, that we somehow never end up dealing with. In particular it is about defilements. But what are defilements?

Defilements refer to patterns of thought, habits, and emotions that sap our energy and keep us from thriving. Defilements prevent us from awakening our wisdom or compassion. They pollute what is by nature pure, and block our instinct to grow and develop. They are powerful inner obstacles. Of course we may have outer obstacles, as well, but the idea is to start with what is close at hand, something we could actually have some influence over.

On a mundane level, you may notice that some things always seem to end up at the bottom of your to-do list, and just stay there. Sometimes they migrate to a new improved to-do list, but once again they end up on the bottom. With this slogan, you remind yourself to shake this pattern up and to go straight to the most difficult task. Although we may have a variety of things to do, it is pretty easy to figure out what that particular task might be. We can feel the quality of avoidance in our bodies.

At a deeper level, this slogan challenges us to analyze what really sets us back. Persistent self-analysis is necessary to expose our core obstacles and get to the root of what holds us down. It challenges to dig deeply enough to uncover our greatest defilements. And having done so, we need to stick with that defilement and keep working on it until we are free of it.

This slogan also points to an on-the-spot way of working with our situation in which we do not put anything off, but we deal with whatever defilement arises simply and directly. That is, in cooking up compassion, nothing is moved to the back burner.


What patterns of thought or habit do you have that block your development of wisdom and insight? What is your most consistent and frequent roadblock? Take some time to reflect on this and on how you might begin to work with it.

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